Doctor Sleep

2019

Dir. Mike Flanagan

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Kyliegh Curran,

This summer I was lucky enough to visit The Design Museum and see their wonderful exhibition on Stanley Kubrick. Amongst the items they had on display from the Kubrick archives was an original manuscript of Stephen King’s The Shining, complete with margin notes from Stanley Kubrick. It also had a quote from Kubrick explaining that he liked the novel because it went deeper into the psychological aspects of Jack Torrance, and wasn’t just about the supernatural. Kubrick’s film adaptation has gone on to be a horror masterpiece, whilst Stephen King has publicly voiced his outrage at the changes that Kubrick made whilst adapting his novel for the screen. So when director Mike Flanagan took on the task of adapting Doctor Sleep, Sutephen King’s sequel to The Shining, he had a tough job on his hands, pleasing both Stephen King and fans of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal masterpiece.

As you may have already guessed, I’m a big fan of Kubrick’s movies, but I’m also a huge Stephen King fan. I love The Shining, both book and film, even going as far as having Jack Torrance being the only Pop! Vinyl figure I own, and choosing blinds for the spare room based on the pattern being the same as The Overlooks carpet. I’d also read Doctor Sleep the moment it was released, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. The tone of the book Doctor Sleep is very different from The Shining. It’s here that Flanagan faces his biggest challenge, melding together the tone of Kubrick’s movie, with the tone of King’s sequel. It’s a feat that Flanagan achieves with ease. Following on directly from the incidents of The Shining, Doctor Sleep then jumps forwards to the modern day where Danny Torrance is now a grown man and recovering alcoholic, still haunted by the events at The Overlook Hotel. He has tried to hide his shine for years, but soon comes out of hiding when Abra, a young girl with a lot of shine, is targeted by a group known as The True Knot, vampires who feed off the steam of young children with The Shining.

As a pure adaptation of a novel, Doctor Sleep is fantastic. It’s largely faithful to the book, and brings out the best in everything I love about King’s writing. There’s a slight alteration in terms of the style of storytelling. This film is far more linear than King’s book, but for the first two thirds of the movie, this is beat for beat the book I read years ago. Flanagan is fast gaining a reputation for adapting horror novels, with The Haunting Of Hill House bringing the classic novel into the modern age, and now this film. It’s clear to see that he loves the source material that he is working from.

Flanagan also excels in bringing together a fantastic cast. Ewan McGregor is perfect casting for the older Danny Torrance. Bringing a desperation and melancholy to the role. Whilst the young Kyliegh Curran is amazing in a difficult role, one scene in particular where she channels Danny is a great showcase of her talents. Best of all though is Rebecca Ferguson, as Rose The Hat, named for the hat she wears. Rose is the leader of the True Knot, and Ferguson is completely captivating as the main villain of the piece. In fact, the True Knot are all genuinely terrifying.

From Occulus, to The Haunting Of Hill House, and now Doctor Sleep, Flanagan’s films have always dealt with the horror of death, and the question of what lies beyond. In this respect the ghosts of The Overlook are never truly scary in this film, they are there for our characters to come to terms with death. Flanagan’s films suggest that genuinely good people do not have to worry about what comes next. The True Knot on the other hand, are not good. They are most definitely bad, and because of this they fear death above all else. It’s this fear which drives them to torture and kill kids with The Shining for the steam they give off. They feed off of it like a pack of animals, and Flanagan does not shy away from the brutality of their crimes. In a stand-out sequence, they torture and kill a young baseball player, played by the incredibly talented Jacob Tremblay, and in this one sequence Flanagan makes you truly hate and despise the True Knot.

Their agency is the driving force of the movie, and is what sets the difference of tone. The Shining is a psychological horror, and Doctor Sleep is a vampire movie. It’s in the final act of the film that Flanagan manages to deftly merge these two tones into a cohesive one. Bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion which will please both fans of Kubrick’s film and Stephen Kings novel. If the film falters at all it’s in the slightly slow pacing, and the casting of lookalikes to play characters from The Shining. After seeing such fantastic CGI and de-aging techniques in recent films, it is slightly off putting to have an actress who kind of looks like Shelly Duvall.

As a Kubrick and King fan this film was everything I could have hoped it to be, and whilst it doesn’t quite deliver the scares of Kubrick’s classic, this is still expert storytelling which manages to tie together the style of two distinctive masters.

Joker

2019

Dir. Todd Phillips

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy

Joker is a movie. Is it a good movie? Is it a great movie? I don’t know. Do I like it? No. No, I don’t like this movie, and it has taken me awhile to try and figure out why. I sat in the cinema, glued to the screen, and felt… empty?  The film looked like a film I would like, Joaquin Phoenix puts in one hell of a performance, it’s based on an IP that I am a fan of, and yet… empty. The answer to my plight is simple, I felt empty because the film is empty. I have no other way to describe it. I feel like it’s hard to be critical of the film, it’s well made, and in terms of craftsmanship it’s top notch, so you have to scratch deeper, go beyond the celluloid, see whats under the surface…
Nothing. There is nothing here. You’re left falling through darkness, a vast vacuum of nothingness. What is Todd Phillips trying to say with this movie? Nothing. Why does Joker do certain things? No reason. Is what we’re seeing real or a fantasy? It doesn’t matter. It’s empty. It’s an empty shell of a film that just happens to look good, and have a fantastic performance at its centre. It may seem harsh to judge a comic book movie this deeply, but this is not a comic book movie. Whether you agree with Martin Scorsese’s comments about Marvel movies not being cinema, and just being theme park rides doesn’t matter. What’s cinema and what’s not cinema is a debate for another day. I know personally, I have to look at Marvel movies with a different critical eye than I do other movies. I judge them on pure enjoyment, and don’t really mind if they reflect society, or tell me something about the human condition. I go into them with different expectations. Joker, though asks you to go in with different expectations, higher expectations. It’s not a comic book movie, there are no superheroes. There are references to the comics, but that’s it. There’s even debate raging over whether he actually is the character from the comics, or more of a proto-joker. Joker places itself next to cinematic greats such as Taxi Driver, King Of Comedy, and even Requiem For A Dream. It’s taken their style, but none of their substance.
The world of Joker is a cruel world. Gotham is designed to look like New York in the 70’s/80’s, invoking the films of Scorsese. Arthur Fleck, played by Phoenix, is an outsider. He lives in small dank flat with his ill mother. He has mental disabilities of his own. A head injury which has left him with a nervous tick, an annoying laugh whenever he is upset or nervous. The world just keeps beating him down. No one offers a helping hand, and after an attack on Arthur ends violently, Arthur finds that he is empowered by these acts of violence. I don’t want to spoil anymore for those who haven’t seen it, but what follows is a mixture of rich vs poor, mental illnesses, cuts to social departments, riots, bullying and murders. This all comes to culmination when Arthur is invited onto his favourite talk show, after he is mocked by the presenter, played by Robert De Niro, after one of Arthur’s stand up routines went viral. 
What does director Todd Phillips whats me to take away from this movie? I don’t know, and to be honest, judging by the interviews he has given around the movie, I don’t think he knows. He has undoubtedly put together a well made movie. The cinematography and set design are stunning, and the casting of Joaquin Phoenix is a masterstroke. This is one of the best performances I have ever seen on screen. The problem all lies in story. The story is not strong enough, there is not enough deeper meaning or subtext to it. Take the final speech as an example, it offers nothing, no profound statement, just a way to bludgeon the audience over the head with points which should be obvious to anyone who has just watched the last 2 hours. It could be that Phillips sees his Joker as the ultimate vision of insanity and anarchy, forged by a cruel society that doesn’t care about him, but to what end is never made clear.
The Joker works so well as a Batman villain as they are both two sides of the same coin. The problem here is we only get one side. It means that we are forced to try and feel sympathy, or at least pity for someone we don’t want to relate to. We see the film through his eyes, and through that viewpoint his actions are seen as almost heroic. In an almost Death Wish kind of way we are supposed to feel like his victims deserve what comes to them. I personally don’t think films should have to be responsible for the way that people react to them, but this film feels like its provocative for the sake of provocation. Like everything else on screen its just set dressing, all hiding the fact that the emperor is wearing no clothes. 

Terminator: Dark Fate

2019

Terminator: Dark Fate

Dir. Tim Miller

Starring: Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Arnold Schwarzenegger

It’s funny, writing this blog used to be my escape. I worked in retail, and days off and evenings were spent going to the cinema, and mornings were for writing reviews in bed. It all paid off though, I got myself a new job, partly based on this very blog, and that job involves writing, and centres around movies. It’s the dream. Except, when you’ve spent all day writing it’s hard to build the motivation to come home and write. Even if I’m still going to the cinema. So this blog has sat stagnant for awhile. Quietly waiting for me to return to it, as I knew I inevitably would do. Just like futuristic killing machines I kept telling myself one thing “I’ll be back!” It may have taken longer than I had anticipated, but I’m jumping back on the saddle, with metaphorical pen in hand. Like an old western star, quick on the draw and ready to offer my thoughts and opinions on the latest the multiplex has to offer.

It’s fitting that my return to this blog should be for a franchise that has constantly been resurrected for the big screen over recent years. I love the terminator franchise. I saw the first two out of order. T2 was my introduction at a far too young age, but even then I knew there was something special about it. I’ve sat through The Sarah Connor Chronicles, witnessed the missed opportunity that was Salvation, and the less said about Rise of The Machines and Genisys the better, and thankfully Dark Fate goes the extra step of erasing all of these sequels from the timeline. For the first time it feels like we’re getting a worthy sequel. By going back to basics Tim Miller has remembered the one thing that those other sequels had forgotten. He’s remembered exactly what a Terminator movie is.

The film revolves around Dani Ramos, played with gusto by Natalia Reyes. A young girl in Mexico who suddenly finds her life threatened when a Terminator, sent back in time to kill her, shows up at her work. Lucky for her Mackenzie Davis’ Grace, has also been sent back in time. A human who has been augmented to be able to fight the terminators, Grace only has one mission, save Dani. They are soon joined by original Terminator target Sarah Connor, which sees Linda Hamilton return to her iconic role, as they go on the run front this cyborg killing machine.

I had a blast with this film. It’s honestly so much fun from start to finish. It shares the same DNA as James Cameron’s Terminator films, and whilst it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, the new additions to the lore are all well thought through and satisfying. The inherent problem with a sequel to T2 is that it makes that films themes redundant. T2 is all about free will vs fate, can you change your future or is it set in stone. Any sequel to this will inevitably answer that question because it will have Terminators in it, which means that Sarah Connor didn’t change the future, or she did but she only delayed it. So the big question for any Terminator sequel is how does it exist without ruining the ending to one of the best movies ever made?

Tim Miller and his team of writers, which includes a credit for James Cameron for story, manage to answer this question in a logical, but mostly satisfactory way. It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best answer we’ve had from the sequels. Miller also remembers that whilst the mythology of Terminator is vast, with future wars, nuclear catastrophes and future resistance leaders, at its core a terminator movie is simply a chase movie. By going back to this simple structure Miller is able to make a terminator movie that actually feels like a terminator movie. Some will complain that it’s just a retread of the first two movies, but this is what the franchise needed to save it after so many false starts.

The other vital ingredient for a good terminator movie, which has been missing since T2 is Linda Hamilton playing Sarah Connor, and boy, was it worth the wait. If Arnie is the heart of the terminator franchise, than Linda Hamilton is the soul, and her presence has been sorely missed. She enters this movie almost as if she’s never been away, and completely embodies her character. She’s the reason it’s so easy to forget the disappointment of the previous three films.

It’s hard not to compare this film to another recent reboot/sequel, and that’s the recent Halloween movie, where Jamie Lee Curtis returned to one of her iconic characters. That film almost acts as a blueprint for what Miller is doing here. The heroine of the first film coming back to a familiar story, but this time protecting and ushering in a new heroine for the franchise. Yes, the beats are familiar, but it’s how these veterans react to the newcomers which makes the film click, and in Dark Fate, the newcomers are at the top of their game.

James Cameron causes a bit of controversy the other year when he commented on Wonder Woman’s success, and claimed he had given cinema a truly strong female character in Sarah Connor. In Dark Fate however, we get three for the price of one. Natalia Reyes is note perfect as Dani Ramos, and fully sells her journey from family life to survivor. She’s likeable, strong willed, smart, and compassionate. Equally great is Mackenzie Davis as Grace. The augmented human sent back in time to save Dani. Davis does a fantastic job here, her physical presence matching Hamilton’s. Together these are three damaged but strong female characters who carry the film soundly between them. When Arnie finally shows up, it’s clear that he is here as a supporting actor, and he seems to relish the chance, having a great deal of fun whilst doing it.

The action in this movies is also excellent. We move from set piece to set piece at breakneck speed, but each one is memorable. If the film falls down in any aspect it’s that it’s slightly ugly to look at. I felt that Tim Miller has this problem with Deadpool too, he stretches budgets to get the maximum out of them, but that can come at the detriment to visual appeal. There is also a supposed twist in this movie, and I say “supposed” because it’s so obvious it doesn’t really register as a twist.

When we finally come to the conclusion of the film, there is no real setback up for another one. A smart move by Miller, who has seen other touted trilogies fail to get past the first movie, he has just focussed on making one good movie. It’s paid off, and I for one would like to see him back.